The Noble Job of a Manager in 2009

If anyone can pull us out of the recession, it is business managers.


The person most likely to improve the U.S. economy is not a president, senator, representative or economist.

When it comes to reviving our economy and generating long-term, sustainable success, the most important person is a business manager.

Business managers come with different titles in different industries and at different pay scales. Their labels include CEO, vice president, director, chief global marketing officer, chief technology officer, front-line manager, department head, purchasing manager, controller, and on and on. All of these people are managers. And all of them play the critical role in improving our economy.

Few of the tens of thousands of business managers across the U.S. will ever become known outside their organizations and families. Nevertheless, it is both a necessary and noble job.

It is necessary because without it we can’t get our economy going again. It is noble because managers are the ones who can convert individual inputs into organizational value customers will purchase.

I believe that so deeply, I’ve made it my life’s work to help managers deliver great performances.

So what are the keys to moving the economy forward?
A manager’s resources include her employees, facilities, equipment, time and money. Time is the one fixed resource all managers have, and money is tight. Thus, the worse the economy gets, the more important the role of the manager becomes.
Skilled conversion of resources into greater value ultimately moves an economy forward. Here’s a starter list of tactics to deliver a truly great management performance.

1. Strengthen your foundation.
Get yourself right first. Whatever that means for you, I encourage you to do it. The vast majority of management blunders I’ve witnessed can be traced back to the manager being overly tired, stressed out, out of shape, feeling guilty or some other personal breakdown.

Examine your own physical, mental, social, emotional, moral and financial situation. If you’re a spiritual person, then throw that in as well.

Is your foundation where you want it to be? If not, what practical things could you start with to improve your foundation? By making some progress and doing it over and over again, you will get yourself far closer to where you want your foundation to be. I’ve always been impressed by the ripple effect a manager has on other people when he or she strengthens the foundation of his or her life.

2. Know why you do what you do.
Remember that passion comes from purpose, not the other way around. Why do you do what you do? What is your purpose beyond the paycheck? Since you are unlikely to be paid a king’s ransom or to become famous as a manager, you need a purpose for your work that can sustain you through good and bad economic times.

Once you’re clear about your purpose for doing the work you do, then work with others to clarify the purpose of the organization or work group that you manage. Recently, I interviewed Roy Spence and Haley Rushing, authors of “It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For,” the best book I’ve ever read on the importance of establishing an organizational purpose that resonates with both employees and customers. ( Click here to read my interview with Roy and Haley.)

3. Take the hardest step in business.
The hardest step in business is to step back and think. Really think through the desired outcomes, the various paths to make those outcomes a reality and the planned activities necessary to stick to the path you’ve chosen. It is actually much easier to press forward with action than to step back and think through the ramifications.

Here is a real-life story of two senior-level executives in a major corporation that I’ll call Hare and Tortoise. Hare was a driver-driver. If he had an idea, he would push it into action throughout the organization immediately. Tortoise’s approach was to pose a desired outcome in the form of a question, gather input, consider the alternatives and then guide the group to deliver on a clear action plan using a collaborative approach.

Hare was a rising star. He became famous throughout the organization for getting stuff done. Then one day, employees and customers started leaving the organization. Within a few years, the numbers were so dramatically down that Hare was let go.

Tortoise took over a few extremely poor-performing business units. Instead of rushing to make decisions, he scheduled time to think. He brought together a group of about 15 people to discuss where the business was at, where they wanted it to go, and how they could get there. Using a collaborative approach, the group steadily made improvements. After five consecutive years of great business performances, Tortoise was promoted to another underperforming business unit. Same pattern: thinking time, group time with a collaborative approach, five years of great results and another promotion.

If you want to be a truly great manager, take the hardest step in business. Step back and think.

4. Manage talent, don’t abandon it.
Business talent is the ability to help create value customers will pay for and that will help the organization achieve its goals. In the midst of of the past year’s personnel cuts, be sure you’re not saving short-term results only to ruin the long-term success of your business. Ultimately, you have to have talent in order to create more value for your customers.

You’re not going to make it all by yourself. Be sure to keep as much of the real business talent in your organization as you possibly can. That is the ultimate resource you will be converting into value for customers.

5. Steward; don’t steal.
Over the past 11 years, I’ve written at least one 1,500 word article each month as well as three 70,000-word books. So I’m up to something like 400,000 words on management effectiveness. But if I had to narrow my advice on how to be a great manager down to three words, they would be: steward, don’t steal.

In the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, stewardship means “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” In a nutshell, that’s the job of a business manager. Think of your main job as stewarding resources in ways that will enrich them and create more value for customers. The greatest managers I’ve ever witnessed embraced this concept of stewardship, applied it skillfully and always worked to improve at it. A magnificent new book on the idea of being a great steward is “Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life,” by John Bogle. I encourage you to buy this book and really study it carefully. It is a beautiful explanation of old-time values delivered by a person who has truly lived them.

6. Get better.
I haven’t met every manager on the planet, but of the ones I’ve never seen a perfect manager on Day One. The very best managers I’ve ever seen simply started on the road as a manager, then worked to improve each day. Here’s an interesting quote from a new book called, “Genius 101: Creators, Leaders, and Prodigies” by Keith Simonton: “Geniuses are those who have the intelligence, enthusiasm and endurance to acquire the needed expertise in a broadly valued domain of achievement and who then make contributions to that field that are considered by peers to be both original and highly exemplary.”

I’m not a big fan of the word “genius,” but I do think that definition applies to great managers. They always had the ability to become great managers, they had the passion to stay the course long enough to hone their craft as managers, and they applied their skills in ways that made an exemplary difference for their customers and organizations.

Remember this: You perform the critically important role in making our economy strong and successful both over the short term and the long term. So take the time to strengthen the six management basics above, for your good and the good of our economy.